Wednesday, October 30, 2013


By Ronald Fox

The U.S.-Russian diplomatic initiative to induce Bashar al Assad to abandon chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which voided Washington’s threat to use military force, inspired me to reflect on the legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Does the U.S. opting for diplomacy rather than force in Syria mean that Washington learned valuable lessons from its policy debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan? Could it be that the Syrian crisis represents a turning point in the U.S. proclivity to project global power through the use of military force? Unfortunately there is no reason to believe, Syria notwithstanding, that our recent experiences in the Middle East will produce any significant moderation in American militarism. As the Vietnam War failed to produce any lasting dovish tendencies in U.S. security policy, so won’t the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are, to be sure, a number of positives to draw from the apparently successful diplomatic effort in Syria. We worked closely with the Russians and through the U.N, rather than in our usual unilateral way, President Obama went to Congress for the authority to order military strikes, rather than acting imperially, as all recent Presidents have done, and the American public sent a clear message that it was in no mood for yet another military adventure in the Middle East. A deeper reflection, however, leads me to believe these positive developments will be fleeting. There is little evidence to conclude that President Obama and the national security elite have lost any appetite for using force first, rather than as a last resort, as the operational code in our approach to peace and security. Expect Washington continue to pursue global dominance in the name of peace, framed in the lofty ideals of promoting democracy, civil society, economic development, and rebuilding failed states.

The lesson Obama and Gates seem to have drawn from the disastrous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan is to avoid any future drawn out, boots-on-the-ground, land invasions in the Middle East or Asia. They do not appear to have given up on retaining the freedom of action to use force when the President, and his small handful of top security advisors, deem it necessary. They simply prefer less risky and consequential techniques: drone strikes, special force commando raids, cyber-attacks, assassinations of suspected bad guys, and, above all, secrecy. In these, Obama has outdone his predecessors.

Why am I so skeptical about any fundamental change in Washington’s appetite for global imperial policing? Let me count the ways.

Broadly speaking, projecting military power, with all that entails in the deployment of required financial and technological resources, appeals to the interests of those in America who wield or covet power. This includes the various groups and institutions comprising the national security state, including the upper echelons of the military, Pentagon, State Department, CIA, NSA, and National Security Council. It also includes Congressional war-mongers and militarists, neo-conservative advocates of global interventions, arms manufacturers, private security contractors, and war-friendly patrons in the media. These groups and individuals not only share an ideological affinity with U.S. global dominance, but also have personal stakes in the status quo. Don’t expect them to advocate for any fundamental changes in American security policy; quite the contrary, expect strong, money-backed resistance to any lasting tilt in the direction of diplomacy over power projection.

But what about Congress; didn’t they put up a stop sign for Obama’s threatened use of force in Syria? Whatever his reasons, President Obama’s willingness to go to Congress for authority to order military strikes, as envisioned in the US Constitution, was a refreshing departure from typical, post-World War II, chief executive practice. And give Congress credit for looking for an alternative to war. Instead of simply deferring to the authority of the executive branch, as is usually the case in security matters, our government deferred to the American people, who widely expressed their opposition to military strikes. Remarkably, events in Syria accomplished the improbable: it brought liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans together in by-partisan harmony. Who would believe?

Can we expect similar Congressional engagement on questions of global power projection to be repeated in the future? Probably not; this would require a President’s willingness to act democratically, which is not likely to happen unless there is strong public opposition to military intervention, as occurred on the Syrian intervention question. Is it reasonable to expect that in the future the American people will scrutinize situations where the use of U.S. force is being considered and oppose actions not deemed in our country’s national interest?  Unfortunately, I am doubtful this will occur.

Public opposition to military strikes on Syria will likely prove to be only a temporary departure from usual public passivity and acquiescence on national security matters. After over a decade of two, costly wars, the American people are understandably war weary. They’ve witnessed limited actions escalate into lengthy wars of occupation, none of which have turned out well. This experience helps explain public coolness toward military action against Syria. Americans, however, don’t seem to be adverse to throwing our military weight around when convinced of a national purpose, and given the media’s recent cheer-leading role in ramping up support for war and praising troop bravery and the nobility of our methods and intentions in prosecuting wars, it doesn’t take much to convince the American people. Americans will tolerate the use of military force as long any action is small scale, brief, preferably conducted behind the scenes, and our soldiers don’t die in significant numbers. Once memories of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria fade, which may not take too long given that the mainstream media seems no longer interested in these ongoing conflicts, we can expect a return to business as usual, including, possibly, even another military occupation.

It's understandable why most Americans would not be motivated to become vigilant national security watchdogs. In contrast to past wars, recent military actions have not required much sacrifice on the part of the American people. There have been no new taxes to pay for the wars (in fact, GW Bush and Obama cut taxes), no restrictions on consumption, no adjustments in domestic priorities, and no draft to interrupt young lives; in short, no war mobilization. The American people have been immunized from the suffering of war. With less than one percent of Americans doing the heavy war-lifting, and paying the human price, why should the overwhelming majority of Americans feel a personal stake in military adventures abroad? Such is the legacy of the all-voluntary army that Andrew Bacevich writes about in his book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. The permanent presence of a highly trained, operationally ready, rapidly deployable military capability makes the decision to intervene abroad much easier than when the draft produced a citizens army that connected in many ways to the American society. (Is anyone for bringing back the draft?)

Besides, Americans have become accustomed to their country asserting itself in the international arena. Most believe we are exceptional and always go forth abroad with the best of intentions. As long as Americans remain uninformed about, and inattentive to, global issues, and are not asked to make sacrifices for war, it is unlikely any re-evaluation of American power projecting will take place. This attitude is probably more important to preserving the use of force status quo than the power realities in Washington. For over three decades, Americans have remained disengaged in matters of national security. For most, citizen responsibility is satisfied by simply calling to “support the troops.” As long as this attitude continues, presidents will retain the prerogative to call the security shots with little oversight.

What does this all mean in the future? Perhaps Bacevich says it best: “Americans can look forward to: more needless wars or shadow conflicts sold by a militarized and irresponsible political elite; more wars mismanaged by an intellectually sclerotic and unimaginative senior officer corps; more wars that extract huge penalties without yielding promised outcomes, with consequences quickly swept under the rug even as flags flutter, fighter jets swoop overhead, the band plays the ‘Marines’ Hymn,’ and commercials tout the generosity of beer companies doing good works for the troops.” Sadly, this portends our future.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to agree with your assertions that we will continue to use force abroad much like we have in the past. I also think there is one thing that could cause it to slow down - cost.
    One of the best reasons for continued use of force is the political advantage it gives Democrats. For decades Republicans pummeled Democrats for being soft on defense and supporting a "weak" foreign policy. Regardless of the truth of that assertion, it certainly resonated with voters for a very long time. With Obama as President, they have changed a lot of perceptions. His going after Osama bin Laden and stepping up the "global war on terror" has silenced many critics. It simply works politically for Democrats to continue.
    2. Support from Obama has even further "liberal washed" the issue. Liberal washing involves getting a prominent alleged liberal to endorse a conservative policy to make it more palatable. In the case, having the cover of a President makes it easier for future liberals to continue to be more hawkish.
    3. As the blog points out, the cost of limited action (like the use of drones and special forces) is small relative to the political gain.

    Here is one major reason I can see that might actually make it less likely to use force - cost. As the coming sequester changes bite into the defense budget, Republicans and some more hawkish Democrats will look to soften or reverse those cuts. However, that is very unlikely to happen. Here is why. Further cuts to non-defense social programs are politically dangerous, especially for Democrats, and they are not likely to go along. If Democrats refuse to go for further social program cuts, Republicans will be left with unpalatable choices. Either they will have to accept the cuts, try to push for further unpopular social cuts (again, Dems won't go along), increase taxes, or increase the deficit. Among all those competing choices, I believe it will come down to, in essence, accepting tax increases or defense cuts. I am pretty sure how that will turn out. So, with fewer defense dollars now and likely well into the future, the costs of even small operations is magnified and big operations much more difficult. The slowing down in the use of force will be covered politically by the rising libertarian conservative faction that will provide cover for those supporting defense cuts, so there is a greater chance they will happen and stick.
    Of course, all of this assumes that there isn't some major change (like a major attack on the US or a change of heart among conservatives about more taxes and rising deficits) in our politics that allow the status quo to continue.


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